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Election Day: What we’ll learn about the loser

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One thing I’ve found interesting amid the deluge of election-related coverage in recent weeks is this: Nearly no one is talking about what happens to the loser.

Granted, a few have begun to do so recently. On Monday, CNN published a poignant column by its chief political correspondent (and debate host) Candy Crawley about how she remembers the losing campaigns most. Also yesterday, The Daily Beast featured a roundtable with former presidential nominees Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale to discuss how it feels to lose the big one. “You don’t [get back to normal] very quickly,” Dole said. “You kind of hang your head.”

But amid all the focus on the tightness of the race, the tenor of the campaigns and the electoral paths to victory for each candidate, there haven’t been that many speculative stories about what a post-presidency might look like for Barack Obama should he lose, or just what Mitt Romney would actually do if he comes up short, now that he’s been running for president for at least six years. Those stories that do ask “what if” often re-examine campaign strategy or look at where the party would cast blame instead of asking how the two leaders might spend their post-election days.

Still, it’s hard to imagine just how either man would fill his time. At 65 years old and with millions to his name, Romney obviously would not need to work. He could go back into consulting or private equity, though both are unlikely — he seems destined to hold the chairman’s title somewhere.  

Obama, meanwhile, has said he’d like to work with kids, in some kind of teaching or mentoring capacity. Making lots of cash doing public speeches or writing books also seems like a safe bet. And at just 51 years old, Obama could potentially run again if he loses this election, as a few have speculated. Yet that outcome seems least likely of all.

It’s not only hard to imagine what each man would do with his life after the election, it’s also difficult to grasp how hard it would be to makes such a transition. While they will each face a different reality, both candidates would have to confront the loss of the trappings of power (particularly Obama) and the soul searching of their parties (particularly Romney). The transition to the real world will surely be a more difficult adjustment for the president, given the bubble of life in the White House; while the transition to a new chapter seems more daunting for Romney, given that he never reached his goal that’s been many years in the making.

Sure, the more interesting leadership question might be how either man will face the challenges of winning. No matter who wins, both men will inherit a country more divided than ever, a Congress more dysfunctional than anyone can remember and—most likely—nothing even resembling a political mandate from which to govern.

Still, I’m just as intrigued by the personal question of how either leader moves on from such a monumental loss. How graciously might each man handle his concession speech? (As Crawley noted in her column, “people often say that candidates seem different—better, bigger, more likable in their goodbye moments than at any point in the election process.”) How will they move forward and continue to be leaders on the subjects that matter to them? What leadership roles will they hold in the future?

The way a candidate for president handles the aftermath of a lost election may tell us just as much about their character as anything else.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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